Friday, May 13, 2016

The Case of Mrs Danvers

by John Kinsella

Have just finished reading Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I want to talk about Mrs Danvers because I feel few people really ‘get her’. Let me state immediately that I am not interested in whether or not Rebecca is ‘popular’ fiction or not. It is fiction. It is skilfully written. It has something to say. Popular is neither here nor there, and nor is it a sin! Tristram Shandy (which I have been rereading very, very carefully), was also popular in its time and still has some grip on a readership (in fact, try reading Pynchon and most other innovative novelists from the twentieth century writing in English without subtexting the metatextual play and deflationary tactics — appropriate word given Uncle Toby’s fixation/s — of Sterne’s masterpiece).

Also, I think it neither here nor there if this book is considered (or marketed as!) ‘women’s romantic literature’. I find it an amazingly gender-analytical book; du Maurier has as profound an understanding of aspects of ‘male character’ as anyone else (male or female). Maybe this is unsurprising, given the gender problematics of her grandfather’s writing as embodied in Trilby, and her notorious and seemingly doting relationship with her eminent actor/stage-manager father (and the roles he played?). The males star in her family pantheon. And she shows specifically an understanding of the male gaze (the performative female in bohemian artistic circles as well as in societal circles of the time). Which takes me indirectly where I want to go.

A ‘famous bi-sexual’ (ha! what is this? surely we are all-sexual, or to some extent self-selecting in sexuality, if we bother considering ourselves), du Maurier had a long-term and much protected (by her) marriage to a military man and courtier. She also had many relationships with women. She was compelled not only by desire in life, but by exploring the nature of desire in her texts. She was also a writer who dissected addiction in many forms: in alcoholism (her brilliant portrait of ‘Wild Johnny’ in Hungry Hill, for example), sex, and probably most vitally (and why she gets stuck with reductive labels), the obsessive need not only to find love but to have it constantly reaffirmed and validated (the unnamed narrator of Rebecca obsesses over this — the lack of it far more unfulfilling and even tragic than the lack of physical touch). And it is in this context — addiction and desire — that we make contact with the notorious Mrs Danvers.

Mrs Danvers has been made an icon of suppressed lesbian sexuality perhaps because expressions of lesbian identity in Hollywood during the period of the Code were obfuscated and suppressed (see The Celluloid Closet). Hitchcock’s (quite astonishing) interpretation of Rebecca into film has given rise to Mrs Danvers iconicity in this sense. Mrs Danvers’s self-punishment when Manderley burns, her going in the flames of lust and passion and fire of Rebecca’s haunting of the world of the living, the living who could not reach her Wuthering Heights-like standards of freedom and free will (though we hear much of Rebecca ‘riffing’ off Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and the fragmenting of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ motif/reductionism, it is to Emily Brontë’s overwrought relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff that we should liken it.)

Of course, Maxim de Winter is an inversion of Heathcliff; but neither is he exactly Edgar. (Curiously, as Tracy points out, Laurence Olivier played both cinematic Heathcliff and de Winter roles in succession: in Wyler’s 1939 Wuthering Heights and then in Hitchcock’s 1940 Rebecca). Nor Mr Rochester for that matter. He is a pastiche of maleness du Maurier encountered in the civilised world of her marriage, offset with the bohemian loucheness of her upbringing. A privileged upbringing in which men have powers and can be shown to be fools as well. Mrs Danvers celebrates Rebecca’s playing with men and despising them for their weaknesses. But this does not mean Mrs Danvers is driven by a (barely?) suppressed sexual desire for Rebecca. Her desire is altogether less obvious.

We read that Mrs Danvers practically raised Rebecca. What did this straight-laced woman with the skeletal face and withering stares want with a wild-at-heart girl like Rebecca? Rebecca is du Maurier’s Frankenstein’s monster (Others have indirectly connected Mrs Danvers to Frankenstein, whether monster or doctor, being unclear – see Berenstein, 1998, as Tracy draws to my attention, though I have not read it yet). And it’s to Mary (and Percy) Shelley that we might look for further clues (more of this in another entry). The ‘evil’ of Frankenstein’s monster is a reflection of the world around it, of its inhumanity. I have an old saying, ‘Shit in, shit out’. And the people, in fear, threw much shit at the monster, symbol of all desire for progress and the willingness to sacrifice spiritual ethics in its pursuit. Science taking on God. And thus it is with Mrs Danvers’ creation of Rebecca, who is everything Mrs Danvers is not. I sidetrack here to note that readers establish the second Mrs de Winter as the ‘opposite’ to Rebecca, that she is a either a pale shadow of Rebecca or everything Rebecca was not; that the second Mrs de Winter is underformed in the same way Rebecca was almost overwrought.

Rebecca is Mrs Danvers’s revenge on an out-of-control disordered world (as Tracy suggests, something like Miss Havisham’s ‘creation’ of Estella in Great Expectations). It is her class struggle and gender struggle embodied in the subjectivity of the female identity: unfettered desire, the trappings of vanity that are tossed off without care when done with, though household arrangements and decor are meticulous, as part of the (artificial) role-play of ‘perfect wife’ while beneath, hell reigns in the ‘marriage’. But as much as these ‘attributes’ of femininity are ridiculous constructs of the patriarchy, so is Rebecca a surface for Mrs Danvers’ inner turmoil. She wishes to breaks the bonds of her own constraint — genderwise, sexually, and class-wise. This does, of course, have sexual inflections in terms desire in Mrs Danvers (the touching and smelling of the clothes of the dead, and so on), but it’s more onanistic than that. To love the construct of Rebecca is to love her own creation. Rebecca is never a ‘real’ character in the book, and only given to us through stories and conversations and the narration of vested interests: a ‘good’ Rebecca is certainly not desired by the murderer, Mr de Winter, nor by the supposedly bland second Mrs de Winter, lusting for all-that-Manderley-is-dressed-up-as-‘love’ (other than wanting to be a successful as Rebecca, to take her place as mistress of Manderley — but not be her); a case of protesteth too much, methinks — the narrator’s mock humility is surely supposed to make us feel nauseated!

Hitchcock’s Mrs Danvers’s supposed suicide in flames that she has lit offsets Rebecca’s supposed use of murder to suicide: her youthful, energetic world-encompassing have-it-all self can exist in nothing but perfect form. Rebecca’s terminal illness defines her own end, but more than that, defines the end Mrs Danvers wants to her perfect monster, and herself. We also read a lot about ‘twinning’ in Rebecca (see, for example, Sally Beauman’s ‘Afterword’ in the Virago Modern Classics edition of 2015), but this destruction of one’s own twin is truly the crux of the work. In du Maurier’s novel we read, early in the book, after the ‘gothic’ opening dream-sequence (sorry, most dreams are ‘gothic’!), of the narrator wondering as to the whereabouts/life of Mrs Danver ‘now’ — that is, in the existence post-Manderley being burnt to the ground. Her constant prolepsis, her constant positing of what people might think of her and what they might say and what they might do, which sets the reader up for a hypertext which is really betrayal of the ‘real’ — a pile of ‘red herrings’ as they say — is imploded in this ‘real-time’ contemplation. From the beginning we know a ‘Mrs Danvers’ has been vital to the story, and that she is alive. Rebecca is finally ‘defeated’ by the narrator’s becoming aware and maturity and baptism by fire (remembering she is telling her story from the post- period and constructing her ‘innocence’ in the light of experience), but Mrs Danvers clearly is not ‘defeated’ and has not been (and will not be). But Mrs Danvers is Rebecca. The book is cyclical, and the beginning is a reflection on the end, and the end, left open in itself: Mrs Danvers has cleared out her room and is nowhere to be seen, and then we know Manderley, viewed from a hill, a glow in the sky that is not the Northern lights, is not a false dawn, is burning.

This is the incineration of all that was supposedly Rebecca — but it never was, if we follow the narrator’s words regarding Rebecca’s wild double life in London and Mr de Winter insisting on the separation of states: he tolerates if it’s kept in London, but once it comes to Manderley for the help to see, she has broken the covenant, the contract of marriage having been shown as a farce five days after that first marriage. The incineration was the rebirth of a Mrs Danvers who, we might think, must start again and make yet another Rebecca, another monster, possibly with the aid (again) of Rebecca’s incestuous lover-cousin, Favell, who has (unresolvedly) threatened de Winter with revenge; that he would eventually see ‘justice’ served. Favell is part-Rebecca, and the tool used by Mrs Danvers to unmask yet other features of hypocritical masculinity.

Does all of this make Mrs Danvers a suppressed lesbian, frustrated by circumstance and desire for a young woman (and originally a girl), bursting to reveal her ‘true’ sexuality? Are we to believe maybe that she has conducted at least a clandestine (vital to the book), vicarious or even direct sexual-physical intimate relationship with Rebecca, that she was Rebecca’s true love and vice versa? It’s possible of course, but I don’t think so. (Of course, queer readings of even the film have been more subtle, sophisticated and subtextual than this; I am not contesting them, and in fact deeply respect them.)

Mrs Danvers is asexual on an obvious behavioural level in the narrator’s construct, in who the narrator perceives her to be, or, rather, who she wants us to think she is. She also needs Mrs Danvers to be given permission to hate the monster Rebecca. The second Mrs de Winter can only grow by emasculating the feminine, to work the paradox of Mrs Dr Frankenstein. It’s a web of deceit, as the cliché goes, and deconstructs throughout the text. But Mrs Danvers is also the embodiment of all-sexuality: of desire and destruction where love is thwarted and damaged and burnt. She loved Rebecca as she loved herself. Hitchcock seemed not to ‘understand’ this, or was prevented from doing so by the Code, and punished her, no doubt to the delight of many in its early (and later) audiences!

Friday, April 8, 2016

Du im Voraus -- Rilke translation

By Tracy

This poem is already well-known in English translation, so I am adding my version to the many. It reminds me in some ways of Emily Dickinson's "A Loss of Something Ever Felt I", which David Musselwhite once said to me was the ultimate "lost object" poem.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Du im Voraus

You, my beloved lost in advance, my never-appeared,
I don’t know which notes you prefer.
I no longer try, when what’s coming billows over me,
to recognise you. All the great
images in me, scenery learned at a distance:
towns and spires and bridges and un-
suspected turns in the roads
and the immensity of those countries
once traversed by gods:
grows to its meaning in me,
your meaning, elusive one.

Oh, the gardens you are,
oh, I saw them with such
hope. An open window
in a country house — and you nearly
stepped toward me, thoughtful. Alleys I found —
you had just gone along them,
and sometimes the shopkeepers’ mirrors
were still dizzy with you, and gave out, afraid,
my too-sudden image. — Who knows if the same
bird did not ring out through us
yesterday, separately, in the evening?

                                                    trans. Tracy Ryan

Thursday, April 7, 2016


By Tracy

Windows everywhere. Here is a little poem about windows, specifically Drehkippfenster or tilt-and-turn windows, though the photos show many other kinds. Tilt-and-turn are apparently the most common type of window in Germany


The windows are uncountable
yet plural. On every outdoor
town-view, they dominate – also
singly, from inside, loom over us.
Hold threads under tension, a frame.
Edgy magic, they might unhinge,
fall inward. We tilt them back to air
the room for want of fan or vent,
releasing vapours, our humours.
Out there, commingled.
They gauge the day, admit
street-sound, anonymous.
No veil, this pane, no projection
of hymen, fantastic intactness;
it was always already open.
Not for turning your back on.
Nor for dreaming you live in
another’s life. Rather for keeping
charge like custodia fenestrārum,
alone in a crowd, turning this blind
eye as I hoist or lower the sail.

                                      (Tracy Ryan)

The poem is also engaging indirectly with aspects of the window-ideas in poems by Mallarmé and Baudelaire, as well as the (I think) misguided use of the hymen in de Man and Derrida.

I've also developed an interest (or further developed a very old, long-held interest) in the various kinds of dormer windows, some of which you can see in these photos.

"Custodia fenestrārum" in the poem is making a kind of play on custodia oculorum or custody of the eyes, which is enjoined in monastic (and general religious) life — I use it not because of any empathy with the prudery of those who tout this term nowadays, but because of the sense that when living in a densely populated place (unfamiliar to a rurally-based Australian!), windows are more acutely potential sites of failure to respect privacy — in all directions.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Vegan Lima Bean Patties

By Tracy

One medium onion, diced
240g cooked lima beans
Canola oil for frying
Chilli or other seasoning
Floury potatoes, 2-3 medium
1-2 tbsp nutritional yeast
3 tsp egg replacer 

Fry onion with chilli or other seasoning and set aside to cool.

Put potatoes on to boil (this will not take long for floury potatoes; don’t let them boil too long or they dissolve).

Mash the potatoes with the nutritional yeast. Fluff the egg replacer with a few teaspoons of water till it clumps, then mix into the potato mash. (Otherwise it’s too dry, but you don’t want it runny either.)

In a large bowl, mash lima beans with a fork until they form a fine paste. These beans mash very finely and don’t require a food processor.

Stir in the fried onions, and then combine the potato mash with the bean mash until evenly distributed.

Form into patties and fry for 3-5 minutes each side.

I didn’t use coating, as they crisp and brown by themselves, but if you like a crunchier texture you could use vegan corn crumbs.

The patties here look golden because I used German egg replacer, which contains turmeric – you could add turmeric separately.

Good for sandwiches, or as a meal with salad or cooked vegetables.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

After Storm Katie: a poem

  for Tracy, after twenty years of Cambridge

Getting out. Good for physical and mental health.
And the coal tit ratcheting up so local and yet we know
that refrain from Swabia. Shouldn’t be surprised by this.
Humans validate their omnivorous desire for presence
in the global and the local, the near and far. Polyamorous 

for place. So I am walking the route as if it’s my route 
mapped onto my psyche — out towards Madingley. But 
the gigantic West Cambridge University Estate is becoming
and Seven Pillars arch over the incomplete buildings:
seven yellow cranes facing away from south-westerlies
dying off with sunset. The entire south has been ‘battered’

into a weird submissiveness, and semantics and intonation
and subtext and double-meanings ramp up the translation.
The ground is being trained, the domestic brutalised by
the forces of God which have bizarrely become our forces.
We control the weather by inverted default. We are pantheistic

and pandemic and universal. All at once. I think this, marvelling
the Seven Pillars have stayed upright, their long arms reaching
towards tomorrow’s sunrise as the planet skews a little more,
and those concrete counterweights heavy as security. Into the sun,
then buffering it through the back of my head, the roads hiss
as all come out to play and unbroken daffodils look to their roots.

  John Kinsella

Friday, March 25, 2016

Now that April's (almost) there...

By Tracy

This northern spring marks twenty years since John & I first came to Cambridge together  (we'd been two years married at that point).

Photo by Tim Kinsella

In the grounds of Churchill College

Today, back here after Germany, we met the same beautiful spring weather as twenty years ago (though it's due to turn not-so-lovely from tomorrow).

Churchill daffodils, 2016

Daffodils are out everywhere, and in town the Easter crowds have been enjoying the sunshine.

Here's a section from a poem John wrote in Cambridge back in the early days here, in 1996, and published in Fenland Pastorals (Prest Root Press, 1998)... The poem is called "Triptych: Poems from Churchill College, Cambridge".

3. Seed Cases 
                        for Tracy

Dark clouds thicken overhead
but there's not enough moisture
in the air to prevent the cracking
of seed cases: that crackling

like fire in undergrowth,
or water exploding on hot metal.
A partial collusion of the elements—
only the fifth element missing,

as if the eponymous has no part
in the moment. You hear the seed cases
opening and searching your memory
for a name, a species, find nothing.

But it's a familiar sound—it brings back
Dryandra Forest in the South-West
of Australia. Even the hemisphere
is different. The brain struggles

with location. It's the moment
of aloneness that's captured you,
when nameless plants execute
their cycles. People are absent.

A robin glows nearby. You know
its name and it knows yours. It is wary
and you remain still. The seed falls
and covers friable earth like snow.

And here's one from my early Cambridge days, again an extract from a longer sequence called "Noli Me Tangere", written at Easter in 1996 and published in The Willing Eye (Fremantle Press & Bloodaxe, 1999 & 2000). (Back then I was still working my way out of the Christian faith in which I had grown up; I now have no belief in formal religion. Doubt was showing in the fuller version of this poem...) Note that the fickle Cambridge weather is in there already! The seasons no longer offering stable metaphors were a reference to the fact that climate change was already very noticeable, back when we had no Google yet and email was brand new to us.

Faith blows hot & cold
as Cambridge in spring
where late snow dissipates
before reaching any surface
where nothing penetrates

where those who drank in
yesterday's sun
are caught out now, ill-dressed
for this fickleness,

for this world whose seasons
no longer offer
stable metaphors for
spiritual states.

But then you were never
afraid of change
God of transitions
God of this Easter

constant & steadfast only
in your refusal
to be pinned there.

One of the things John likes about Churchill College is that its chapel is ecumenical (in fact his play "Ecumenical" was performed in that chapel in 2012, directed by Tim Cribb).

And here's a pic of the two of us in the early Cambridge days, in the same flats where we are now and have spent much time over those 20 years. (John used to get a lot more sun in those days, before skin cancers took their toll!)

Photo by Bettina Keil

Saturday, March 19, 2016

World’s End

            after Jakob van Hoddis’s expressionist poem

The sharp-headed citizen grasps at his flying headdress.
A hell of a racket is busting out from here to there.
The roofs are too steep for the tilers split asunder.
Watching the news we are rudely confronted by rising seas.

The storm is upon us, demented waves pole-vault
Beaches and thrust inland to take out the dams.
Most of us have runny noses, which goes with the gestalt.
Coal-bearing rails cascade down from railway bridges.

            John Kinsella

Note: Jakob van Hoddis (Hans Davidsohn) was born in 1887 to a German-Jewish family in Berlin and was murdered by the Nazis in 1942. He published one book of poetry during his lifetime, Weltende, in 1918, though his poetry was collected in 1958. He was resident for some years 'in care' (he suffered from schizophrenia) in Tübingen. There are public steps named after him in Tübingen (that were earlier named after a Nazi doctor, but finally renamed in 1992), and also a plaque on a residential building to mark where he lived. It is not far from where we are staying. The 'expressionist' poem 'Weltende' of which I offer a version (above — I have taken great liberties, but it seems such a prescient poem that I think it works as a commentary on human environmental impact), was published in 1911, and had significant influence on innovative German-language poetry of the time. Hoddis was unable to escape Germany with the rest of his family to Tel Aviv in 1933 due to the British authorities refusing him an entry certificate on the grounds of his mental health condition. The German Wikipedia entry carries far more information on him than the English version.